The chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program said Tuesday he is open to direct contacts with Pyongyang before the Beijing talks are due to resume at the end of the month.  Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill says he's unsure whether a disarmament accord can be reached but that there is no obstacle that seems insurmountable. 

The Beijing talks recessed on Sunday without agreement on a statement of principles for de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula and governing further negotiations.

But Assistant Secretary Hill is still expressing measured optimism about the process, saying that none of the problem issues raised by North Korea at the session stands out as what he termed a real deal-breaker type of difference.

Despite the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the chief U.S. delegate had a half-dozen one-on-one meetings with his North Korean counterpart during the 13-day session in Beijing.

In a talk with State Department reporters, Mr. Hill called those meetings correct and businesslike, with no raised voices, and said they were helpful at least in identifying points of difference.

Though the talks are not due to resume until the week of August 29, Mr. Hill said U.S. officials are prepared to meet the North Koreans during the recess, if it would help advance the process:

"I don't have any plans to meet the North Koreans," Mr. Hill said. "But we are in the middle of the fourth round of the six-party talks. And I think if there's value to direct contacts we would have them, just as we've been having them certainly ever since I've been around."

Mr. Hill said North Korea surprised other delegations  with a last-minute demand that it be allowed to retain a civilian nuclear power capacity, even though he said he thought that issue had been taken care of by a South Korean offer to meet Pyongyang's electricity needs.

The United States opposes any continuing nuclear capability for North Korea, because it scuttled a 1994 nuclear freeze accord with Washington three years ago, and began reprocessing fuel from its existing reactor complex into weapons grade plutonium.

The Bush administration last year presented a detailed proposal at the six-party talks offering Pyongyang multi-lateral security guarantees and aid in return for a complete and verifiable end to its nuclear activities.

Mr. Hill said the June 2004 proposal remains on the table and that in Beijing, he sought to further explain the terms of what he described as a pretty generous offer.

He said North Korea, for its part, raised concerns about the sequencing of the disarmament process, arguing that concessions it was being asked to make were front-loaded, and the aid deferred.

The U.S. envoy told a questioner he was unsure if North Korea would ultimately decide to give up its announced nuclear weapons capability in return for increased aid and recognition, though he said it would make utter, compelling sense for it to do so.

"I did not get a very satisfactory answer for how they plan to use their nuclear weapons in a deterrence scenario," Mr. Hill said. "So it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense for them to hold on to them, and you know these weapons have probably done more damage to their economy than anything you can imagine. So, you know, I won't know the answer to your question until we have a deal and then I can look back and say ahah! They were prepared to give them up."

Mr. Hill said the delegations, including Russia, South Korea and Japan along with the United States, China and North Korea, had made good progress on drafting the statement of principles.

But he said in the last couple days of the talks, when an agreement on a text seemed within reach, the North Koreans indicated they were not ready to finish and asked for the recess to consult the leadership in Pyongyang.